Queensland: Curious creatures of the coral cay

By Paul Rush

At the southern limits of the Great Barrier Reef, Paul Rush finds a special place reserved for nature lovers.

Visitors to Heron Island arrive to a welcome of 100,000 black noddy terns. Photo / Paul Rush
Visitors to Heron Island arrive to a welcome of 100,000 black noddy terns. Photo / Paul Rush

I have discovered two special islands where families can become intimately acquainted with the wonderful creatures of the coral cay. Places where time is measured solely by the passage of the sun and the daily nesting rituals of the giant green turtles and black noddy terns.

Heron and Wilson islands straddle the Tropic of Capricorn, two hours by fast ferry from the pleasantly diverse mining town of Gladstone, gateway to the southern reefs.

Heron Island is a large family-oriented resort with its clocks permanently set to daylight saving time due to its warm winter temperatures. Stepping ashore I'm soon captivated by the legions of swift, swerving black noddy terns that greet me on the sandy track to the resort. They dart and dive at breakneck speed, their wings a charcoal blur of rapid motion like a speeded up cinematic image. There are 100,000 terns on this island during the nesting season and they all seem delighted to welcome eco-sensitive visitors to their island.

While my initial walk with the birds feels like a benign re-enactment of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, the beachside villa that is my home on Heron Island is a blissfully calm haven of peace. There is a comfortable queen-size bed, ample ensuite and fully stocked minibar. My room provides refined relaxation to balance the raw nature that reigns outside.

From my window I watch the delicate ecology of life as it ebbs and flows.
Along with my new-found friends, the 'noddies', there are quaint buff-banded rails that love sneaking into the bar area for a surreptitious snack. When dust falls, thousands of mutton birds (sooty shearwaters) return from their fishing forays and head for their underground burrows. They are curious critters and distinguish themselves by being decidedly awkward and poor-sighted on land and often blundering into walls and trees. They also set up a mournful moaning chorus all through the night. Early seafarers hearing the eerie lament were convinced that the island was haunted by ghosts.

However, I'm here to witness nature in its rawest guise, so following best practices in turtle watching I creep along the shoreline at dusk, gazing intently into the murk for large round rocks on the beach. Soon I spot one and stand transfixed the requisite distance away from the eighty-year-old mum.

After five minutes the black silhouette has not moved. Maybe the old dear is finding the physical effort too great. I don't want to disturb her as she may return to the sea and lay her eggs where they won't be viable. I advance carefully towards the rock and determine that - yes, you guessed it - it's actually a rock. Turtle watching 101; be sure your object is actually a turtle.

Now armed with knowledge gained from practical experience, I soon find a turtle, which is systematically burying itself in a big hole. All four flippers are sweeping in unison, sending showers of sand behind it filling up another crater in this moonscape beach. After 20 minutes the turtle cups a rear flipper into the shape of a hand and excavates a half-metre deep chamber into which she will drop her 120 leathery white eggs and then she fills in the entire hole.

I learn another valuable lesson by inadvertently walking in front of a turtle, who cleverly cups her rear flipper and sends a large handful of sand into my face as if to say, 'Clear-off cobber, we've been nesting here for a thousand years and don't like interlopers'. I turn in, still buzzing from all this intense interaction. It's enough to be living in the midst of a crowded aviary without having to withstand 'D-day' landings and the invasion of the body sprayers.

All this nesting action takes place in the November-March period. The tiny turtle hatchlings start to emerge in January, taking five days to scrabble up to the surface. When dusk falls they sense the cooling of the sand and break out en masse to race to the sea. Unfortunately, silver gulls usually wait in line abreast at the water's edge and sea eagles and ospreys soar overhead anticipating a feast.

The game little survivors that win the hundred metre dash down the beach invariably meet a reception of reef sharks and stingrays. Only one turtle in a thousand will reach maturity at 40 years of age, when it will mate and return to Heron Island all the way from Fiji or New Caledonia.

The ecology-based Heron Island kid's club is inspirational. Little nature lovers are given a fun workbook to record their face-to-face encounters with the colourful characters of the coral cay in order to earn their Junior Ranger Badge. Heron offers endless coral gardens teeming with semi-tame iridescent fish and critters like Harry the Hermit crab, Rex the wrasse and Ali the anemone.

After a very fine breakfast prepared by the talented Heron Island chefs, I take the 30 minute powerboat crossing to Wilson Island for an even more intimate look at nature's wonders of the reef.

The amiable hosts are there to help me ashore and show me genuine hospitality, ensuring that I soon completely lose track of time. The facilities are simple but comfortable. Six well-designed, secluded tents, all with ocean views and nestling in a forest of pisonia trees and pandamus palms.

My tent has a king-size bed, bedside lamps, two bathrobes, a wind-up torch, beach towels, a footbath and an outside hammock. The hammock is directly below a pandamus canopy so it becomes my bird observation platform, providing hours of free entertainment.

The nesting noddy couples display all manner of human traits and proclivities, snuggling up in an affectionate embrace at times and then scrapping over minor household matters. I'm impressed by the perseverance of the males who repeatedly deliver carefully chosen nesting materials only to have them instantly rejected by the females. Naturalists have seen up to 90 consecutive leaf presentations declined with impunity.

Walking around such a deserted island is pure joy. I wade in the crystal-clear water, mesmerised by the swarming baitfish that give off sudden flashes of reflected sunlight. My bare feet squelch in the smooth white sand. The shallow waters on the reef shimmer in the purest aquamarine, merging with a clear blue sky on the horizon.

Later I snorkel over the extensive reef flats, marvelling at the kaleidoscopic coral gardens and iridescent tropical fish. Nemo the orange clownfish is there along with his next of fin - graceful angel fish, damsels and demoiselles, darting butterfly fish and fusiliers, brilliant striped wrasse and parrot fish.

My evening meal is beautifully presented with an entree of smoked salmon, mains of filet steak and mushrooms and a cream passionfruit desert. As I talk with the other guests, a pair of nosey rails and a bar-shouldered dove trot under the table. Then a bewildered mutton bird careers into the longhouse and collides with the wine goblet shelf with shattering results. That's the thing with Wilson Island, you don't have to go looking for the wildlife, it comes looking for you.

The island hostess has the last word. 'I ask departing guests to mention Wilson Island to their friends, but the tongue in cheek response is often; no way, we don't want to share it with anyone else.'

Paul Rush travelled to the Great Barrier Reef courtesy of Tourism Queensland.

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